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Spotlight on a Small Town – White Rock

Originally published in ThumbPrint News March 2012 edition with permission from editor to post on this blog.

White Rock is a small community of Sherman Township located at the southeast corner of Huron County in Michigan.  It is about fifty miles north of Port Huron and nine miles south of Harbor Beach on M-25 intersecting White Rock Road.  Settled in 1860, the community was named after a large limestone boulder about a half mile from the shore of Lake Huron.

In 1807, the large White Rock was used as a northeastern most boundary marker in the treaty made at Detroit. Michigan’s first Governor, William Hull, negotiated rights with the Ottawa, Chippewa, Wyandotte, and Potawatomi Indian tribes to settle within the boundaries they had outlined for the Northwest Territory.

This placard at the White Rock Roadside Park sits opposite of the white rock for which the town is named.

The White Rock was a sacred place to the Ojibawa Indians.  Many ceremonies and special councils were held on this rock.  They would use the boulder as a sacrificial altar to the Great Spirit, Gitchi Manitou; placing freshly killed game and other foods so that the Great Spirit could feast while no one was looking.  In return, the Indians would be rewarded with success in their hunting, victory over their enemies, and protection in their canoes as they moved along the coast.

Since White Rock was the gathering place for Indians, it soon became a gathering place for early explorers.  The first white settler in Huron County was Edward Petit.  He opened a trading post on Shebeon Creek which was later moved to White Rock.  Petit traveled the shoreline of Lake Huron and would learn the language of the Indians.  On one of his explorations, he found a group of Indians with large quantities of furs.  He had shared his only loaf of bread and purchased 500 marten skins for $1 each which he later sold for $2 each.

Early settlers, consisting of fishermen and “shingle-shavers,” discovered a harsh country that was heavily forested.  Lumbering industries soon cropped up, and cut logs were floated down rivers or streams to the mill.  Then, the milled logs were loaded onto ships at the harbor in White Rock.  Soon afterwards, the town became an important trading center in the Thumb area.

By the 1830’s, industries such as salt wells and fishery created a booming town.  White Rock once boasted of its 4 hotels, a brick yard, a power plant, a sawmill, 2 copper shops, a barrel factory, a railroad, 19 businesses, 3 churches and a two-room schoolhouse.  A dock was built by King and Davis in 1859.  It extended 1,000 feet and was built with pine spiles and cribbing.  That same year, White Rock acquired a post office.  In January of 1862, a mail route was established along the Old Indian Trail by the beach, and a stage would follow the shore on ice during the winter.  The post office continued its operation until April 30, 1907.

When the Great Fire of 1871 swept in, it threatened to destroy White Rock.  The residents formed a bucket brigade to save their beloved town, but they were forced to retreat.   Many people of White Rock and surrounding villages loaded their belongings in wagons and fled to the lake.  The fierce winds caused rough waves and those seeking refuge were tossed about.  To escape the immense heat of the flames, they would risk drowning and duck under the cool waters.

After eight hours, the fire receded.  The people returned to shore to discover their wagons had burned down to the waterline.  The town was destroyed including a lighthouse that was built in 1856.  Nearly 200 survivors were transported by steamboat to Port Huron or Port Austin.  The first Red Cross was built in White Rock to aid the survivors of the fire of 1881.

Even though White Rock was rebuilt after each fire, many of the residents moved north to establish Harbor Beach.  White Rock never recovered its former glory, and since most of the timber was cleared by the fires, agriculture would soon become the economic opportunity for this area.

Dancing to live bands became the prominent form of entertainment for residents and visitors to White Rock.  Many people would travel from Detroit and dock at White Rock just to go dancing on the boulder that was large enough to accommodate 16 square dancers.  Musicians would play in their boats while the dancers were allotted room to move around on the smooth surface of the rock.

The Lynch Dance Hall (Photo courtesy of White Rock School Museum)
Anna Hoin Strawska and her husband, Joseph Strawska, were owners of Pinnacle Hall. This picture shows Anna and her 1928 Chevy parked at the gas pumps of The Red Crown Gasoline Station. (Photo courtesy of White Rock School Museum)

One of many legends tells of a group of white people square dancing on the White Rock.  The local Indians had warned them that the rock was sacred and they should not dance on it, but the square dancers loaded their canoes and headed for the rock.  As the dancers elated in their entertainment, a bolt of lightning suddenly struck the White Rock and killed everyone on it leaving only one man, who had heeded the Indian’s warning and stayed ashore, to recount the terrible tragedy.

There were two dance halls for the dancers.  The Lynch Hall was built by the shore of Lake Huron.  It was a circular building which included mirrors between the windows that surrounded the dance floor.  It was built in the early 1900’s and burned down in 1933.

The Pinnacle Hall was named for its prominent view of Lake Huron and was built by Sam and William Hanna.  It was a dance hall, general store, barbershop, pool hall, and gas station.  The dance hall was restored in 1971 as a private residence.  Today, residents of White Rock and passersby are encouraged to visit the sloping hillside and walk among the manicured gardens to remember years of enjoyment once shared by so many people.

White Rock Schoolhouse Museum as it is seen today.

The first schoolhouse was built on September 2, 1872.  After the fire of 1881, a two-room schoolhouse was built near White Rock Road one-eighth mile west of M-25.  It was destroyed by a fire in 1908 and the district salvaged what lumber they could to rebuild a one-room schoolhouse in 1909.

“It was like the Three Little Pigs story,” Sheila (Cowper) Eddy, co-curator of the White Rock Schoolhouse Museum said.  “They built one out of wood and it burned down.  And silly them, they built another one out of wood.  So, this time they built it out of brick.”

Sheila (Cowper) Eddy, a former student of White Rock School, exhibits the 48 star flag which is among the many artifact inside the school.

Sheila was raised one mile north of White Rock.  She reminisced about the times that she had spent in this school.  She boasted about the library that use to house 62 volumes, the globe that once was pulled down from the ceiling, the rolled-up maps containing places such as Prussia, Istanbul, and Prague on its delicate pages, and the desks that seem to shrink in size for the tiniest of kindergartners.

“We are very proud of our school,” Sheila said as she held out the forty-eight star American flag.

The White Rock Schoolhouse was closed permanently in 1968.  The residents were determined to preserve the school.  In 1970, the Huron County Historical Society purchased it from Huron County for $1.  It officially opened as a local museum when The State of Michigan recognized it as a Michigan Museum and was adopted by the Senate on June 28, 1972.

A unique landmark today is a lighthouse standing on the corner of White Rock Road and M-25.  It was designed and built by Clarence Junior “Mac” McCollough in memory of his great-uncle and Great Lakes Captain, Capt. Bill Lindsay.  Mr. McCollough is the son of Lucille (Hannah) McCollough who was a State Representative for 28 years.  This lighthouse is similar in design to the 1856 lighthouse that once graced White Rock’s shores.

Customers of Frank’s Place show off the catch of the day. (Photo Courtesy of Frank’s Place)

Fishing has always been abundant in White Rock; especially the perch which is said to range in size from 10 to 16 inches.  Frank and Elaine Lynch had purchased land where the Lynch Dance Hall once stood from Earl Macileven.  Mr. Macileven was a retired police officer of Detroit and he sold the land in three sections; allowing the Lynches to nestle their vacation home in the middle.  During the summer months the family would catch perch among the weed beds at the shoreline of Lake Huron.

One summer, their children collected and sold over 500 earthworms in 2 ½ hours.  At that time, there were no bait & tackle shops in the general area, and the Lynches soon discovered their niche.  The boys built a shed using recycled lumber from the homes that were cleared for construction of Wayne State University.  In June of 1968, Frank’s Place was born.  Business continued to boom and two more additions were created.  The first addition included an attic and additional space for the minnow tank at the back of the shop, and the second addition expanded the building to the north.

Frank and Elaine Lynch inside their shop in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Frank and Elaine Lynch)

Frank and Elaine had many stories to share about their adventures.  They told of one where Frank and his friend had won second place in a fishing tournament only to give their winning catch away so they wouldn’t be late for his daughter’s wedding.  Another story was told about a time when Frank caught a 4 ½ foot carp (the one that no one else could catch) off his dock with a Mickey Mouse fishing pole.

Frank’s Place had a notable reputation for helping the stranded boater; especially those who got too close to the rock beds during the Mackinac Island Races.  Frank would often work with the coast guard by giving them access to his rental boats and joining them on the rescues of Lake Huron.

In 1998, Frank’s Place was awarded the Oldest Tackle Shop for Commercial Fishing in Michigan’s Thumb at Michigan State University.  Elaine attended a four day presentation and toured the museum where Frank’s hand-made sinkers and rigs were on display.  Today, due to health issues, Frank’s Place is closed for the winter and will reopen April of this year.

The white rock as seen from the landing of a staircase leading down to the shoreline at the roadside park.

In 2003, a road side park across from the White Rock was established.  It features picnic tables, grills, public restrooms, a walking path, and descriptions of the area’s history on plaques.  The White Rock we see today rises about four feet above the waterline and is about twelve feet square in length.  Erosion, lightning strikes, and the U.S. Air Force’s use of the rock for target practice during World War II have rapidly diminished the size of this once great rock.  Standing on the rock looking down, one can make out markings on the surface dating back to the 1870’s.  A closer inspection would reveal the bullet holes from 50-caliber guns mounted on the wings of military aircraft.  And nearby the boulder, one could see large chunks of rock broken off due to centuries of frozen ice and storms.

Local historians work diligently to preserve what is left of White Rock history, but the stories of days gone by can be best told on the lips of its villagers and the artifacts left behind.

5 thoughts on “Spotlight on a Small Town – White Rock”

  1. I grew up in White Rock. Went to the school. I remember Hiram Stover driving his Model A.and being Mayor. Put in Ma Furmans Antique shop on the top of the hill. I used to cut the weeds around her place. I do not know if the place is still there next week I am going to visit Still have relatives Margaret Reid, Elizabeth Booms and Rita Reid. My name is James Reid.

    1. Awesome! Stop by Frank’s Place and tell my grandmother you read about it here and watch her puff up with pride! 😊 She will talk your ear off with the stories of White Rock and our family.

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